by Nitya Krsna dasa
Sects & How the Swanlike Condemn Pretenders While Remaining Strictly Non-Sectarian
The greater Krishna consciousness movement always exists in the spiritual sky, and to the extent that we connect to those pure representatives of Krishna that are fully devoted to Him, we can also participate. This movement was most recently shown to the world by the last widely accepted pure devotee of Krishna, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta swami Prabhupada (Srila Prabhupada). He was acting on behalf of the previous spiritual masters of the Brahma-Madhava-Gaudiya Vaishnava disciplic succession, or sampradaya, going back to Lord Krishna Himself. Those unalloyed servants of Krishna have taught us that, to the extent that we devote ourselves to the process of Krishna (God) consciousness, we can also realize the completely pure activities of the residents of the spiritual sky, where everything is centered on serving the supreme personality of Godhead, Krishna.
Lord Krishna appeared on earth over 5,000 years ago. He is accepted as the supreme lord on the basis of His pastimes recorded in the Srimad Bhagavatam (The All-Beautiful Story of the Supreme Lord) and the Maha-Bharata. His supreme authority is perhaps best understood in the Bhagavad-gita (The Song of God), the most widely read section of the Maha-Bharata. A Vaishnava is a devotee of Vishnu or Krishna, and Lord Brahma, Srila Madhvacarya and Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (Gaurasundara) are prominent figures in the above disciplic succession.
Complete Krishna consciousness entails becoming free from any competing desire or distraction. One gives up personal desires for fame, adoration and distinction and never identifies the material body with the self. There cannot be envy of Krishna wherein one feels that they also deserve to enjoy His creation. One must see everything, including oneself, as an object for Krishna’s enjoyment. This participation in Krishna’s enjoyment is only made possible by developing complete love for Him. The process of developing this love was exemplified by Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the incarnation of Krishna who appeared in India over 500 years ago and taught the yuga dharma, or the method for realizing God in this iron age of Kali. That process is the chanting of His holy names – Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.
This state of pure love of Krishna is our original constitutional position. It is the eternal consciousness that is inherent in all life, full of bliss and knowledge, but that has been covered over by our association with matter and the tendency to enjoy separately from God, or in imitation of Him. The pure devotee spiritual masters, who are never under this illusion, appear in this material world to instruct and guide those suffering in this false bodily concept of life, so that they can revive their eternal spiritual awareness and identity as eternal servants of Krishna.
We are not these material bodies. This is easily understood when we see how the body changes as one ages. We can understand that throughout these changes, wherein innumerable atoms come and go from the body, we remain the same witness or identity. Nevertheless, although we expend all sorts of effort to better maintain the body, we have practically no knowledge of the nature of that unchanging identity. This illustrates the strong power that illusion has over even the greatest presidents and leaders of material society. This illusory state becomes obvious during an emergency situation or the death of loved one, times when our spiritual ignorance causes great personal fear and bewilderment.
Krishna consciousness, or genuine self-realization, is then the process of developing knowledge of our eternal, non-material identity. This consciousness becomes more and more clear as we learn to see ourselves as the eternal servant of Krishna, engaging in that service under the guidance of a pure devotee spiritual master, such as Srila Prabhupada. This clearing process is much like a child getting relief by helplessly calling out its parent’s name. Similarly, we ignorant conditioned souls can get out of the danger of material life’s birth, death, old age and disease by calling out to God with His holy names.
dehino ‘smin yatha dehe
kaumaram yauvanam jara
dhiras tatra na muhyati
As the embodied soul continually passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. The self-realized soul is not bewildered by such a change. Bhagavad-gita 2.13
Absolute spiritual existence is the platform of complete attraction to the Lord, who is capable of attracting everyone. Krishna is the possessor of all opulence and is absorbed in unlimited enjoyment. What is more, He is also in full knowledge of His eternal personal loving relationship with each one of us, something we have very much forgotten. The manifestation of those intimate dealings fully captures our hearts when we fully surrender to His service and come to the spiritual platform.
In material existence we are besieged by the anxieties of providing for ourselves and our families. We are thus consumed by the forest fire of temporary struggle, something that inevitably ends in death. Our materialistic plans and adjustments are often frustrated or complicated by events beyond our control. Chanting the names of God, on the other hand, instantly lifts us to the transcendental level where we can develop genuine peace of mind and detachment from these difficulties. Gaining greater and greater taste for this state, we eventually give up material longings and experience full satcitananda, or eternal bliss and knowledge, reality in its complete sense.
Nevertheless, although this chanting process can be taken up by any child, there are many pitfalls and obstacles as one makes progress out of dull materialistic consciousness. It is much like declaring war on the temptations of material nature. There are often defeats or setbacks. Perhaps the most important choice is who to hear from and associate with.
Non-Sectarian Vaishnava Dharma
Despite the universality of these teachings of the acaryas, or exemplary spiritual masters, differences arise among their followers. These various emphases in worship, philosophy, etc. were described by our previous spiritual master, Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura, in his introduction to Sri Krishna Samhita.
“Differences that arise from places, times, languages, behaviors, foods, dresses, and natures of various communities are incorporated within people’s spiritual practices and gradually make one community so completely different from another community that even the consideration that everyone is a human being may cease to exist. Due to these differences there is disagreement, cessation of social intercourse, and fighting, even up to the point of killing one another. When an asslike mentality becomes prominent within the kanistha-adhikaris (neophytes), they certainly indulge in these things. But if they develop a swanlike mentality, then they do not take part in quarrels; rather, they endeavor to attain a higher level. Madhyama-adhikaris (learned devotees) do not quarrel so much about external standards, but they are always attacked by philosophical disagreements. Sometimes they condemn the standards of neophytes and establish their own standards as superior. They condemn the neophytes deity worship in order to establish the worshipable Lord as formless. In such cases, they are also considered asslike people. Otherwise, if they had a swanlike mentality and a desire to attain a higher level, they would respect others practices and inquire about higher topics.
“Contradictions actually arise only due to asslike mentality. Swanlike persons consider the necessity for different practices according to one‘s qualification, so they are naturally detached from sectarian quarrels.” Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura, Sri Krishna Samhita, introduction (our additions)
Here the Thakura says that swanlike people avoid sectarian quarrels. The completely swanlike person is the paramahamsa, the liberated, fully Krishna conscious devotee. In other words, those devotees who transcend sectarian bickering truly aspire to realize the consciousness of the spiritual sky and the greater Krishna consciousness movement.
At the end of this remark, Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura writes that religious people or groups may have different practices due to their level of qualification. This means that, although a more advanced devotee recognizes some people’s lack of advancement, he or she does not condemn them simply because their practices or philosophy are different.
Pure Devotional Service
Although the introduction of Sri Krishna Samhita contains this eloquent description of non-sectarian Vaishnava dharma, Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura is perhaps better known for his scathing condemnations of the various sahajiya, or so-called devotee, groups of 19th century India. This is nicely summarized in this remark.
“One should give up the association of dharmadvajis, the hypocritically devout, with special care. Those who accept the external signs of dharma but do not actually follow dharma are called dharmadvajis. There are two types of dharmadvajis—the hypocrites and the fools, or the cheaters and the cheated. Such hypocrisy in jnana-kanda and karma-kanda is also condemned. In devotional service this hypocrisy ruins everything. Better associate with sense enjoyers, for in this whole world there is no worse association than the dharmadvaji. The deceitful dharmadvajis accept the signs of dharma with a desire to cheat the world, and to fulfill their crooked desires they cheat the foolish by helping them in their rascaldom.” Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura, Sri Bhaktyaloka, Six Faults that Destroy Bhakti, Jana Sanga
Here we see that swanlike devotees like Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura soundly condemn the pseudo-religious. He says that such association is even worse than that of non-devotee sense enjoyers. In this regard Srila Prabhupada cites his spiritual master, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saravati Prabhupada, the son of Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura:
“Srila Bhaktisiddhanta comments that saralata, or simplicity, is the first qualification of a Vaishnava, whereas duplicity or cunning behavior is a great offense against the principle of devotional service. As one advances in Krishna consciousness, one must gradually become disgusted with material attachment and thus become more and more attached to the service of the Lord. If one is not factually detached from material activities but still proclaims himself advanced in devotional service, he is cheating. No one will be happy to see such behavior.” Srila Prabhupada, Sri Caitanya Caritamrita, Antya Lila 2.117, Purport
These quotes resolve the apparent contradiction of condemning so-called devotees and remaining strictly non-sectarian. This is the position of all the liberated swanlike pure devotee acaryas. Nevertheless, many questions arise as to who is a real devotee and who is a pretender. How is one to properly discriminate between leaders or groups of devotees when one does not have a previous acarya’s clear guidance about their positions? What differentiates a devotee who is sincerely applying the above process of chanting the holy names from one who has stalled on the path and wants to enjoy, often at the expense of their followers or the innocent public?
“Fortunate means everyone has got his discretion. So one who has the fortune to discriminate, then he can understand Krishna very easily.” Srila Prabhupada, Class on Srimad-Bhagavatam 6.1.15, London, July 30, 1971
The greater Krishna consciousness movement is always going on. One participates by strictly following the previous acaryas and, by their mercy, discriminating properly. That following should be in terms of both conduct and philosophy.
“Your siddhanta is correct to the sastra and in this way go on reading books and have the correct perception and Krsna will help you. siddhanta baliya citte na kara alasa iha haite krsna lage sudrdha manasa [Adi 2.117]. A sincere student should not neglect the discussion of such conclusions, considering them controversial, for such discussions strengthen the mind. Thus one’s mind becomes attached to Sri Krsna. You should be always alert in understanding the sastric conclusions that will help you, otherwise we can be misled by bogus philosophies.” Srila Prabhupada, Letter to Ayodhyapati dasa, 22 September, 1976
All un-attributed quotes after this section are by Srila Prabhupada.
The Movement of A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada
When Srila Prabhupada was physically manifest he founded and directed the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON). There are those who imply that he gave his senior disciples too much liberty as he tried to train them to manage the movement’s affairs, but this was also a method that generally produced good results for him. It was never his tendency to interfere with the free will of his followers. In his worldwide movement he had to work with those who came to his spiritual shelter.
As far as his personal example goes, Srila Prabhupada always exhibited the above highest non-contradictory standard, and to the extent that his disciples followed his teachings and swanlike example, his movement was similar. This more exemplary period can then be compared with what occurred after his disappearance in late 1977. It is also notable that this was how the movement largely conducted itself during the period when it was growing exponentially all over the world. Many accept that this attracted the blessings of Krishna to send the thousands who participated in this unprecedented world-wide blossoming of His greater Krishna consciousness movement.
Sadly this harmony was short-lived after Srila Prabhupada’s departure. Within a few months, eleven of his senior managers declared that he had appointed them as gurus and spiritual successors. Although this was initially accepted by virtually everyone, problems and contradictions arose in short order. After some initial disagreements, disciplinary actions and mutual condemnations, grosser scandals became regular occurrences. Some of the eleven were found to be having illicit sex with women, boys or other men, and others were taking intoxication of some kind. The biggest scandal, however, was the 1986 murder of perhaps their most vocal critic, Sulocana dasa.
As these unfolded, other devotees began claiming that a number of these “zonal acaryas” showed many signs of being pretenders. The zonal adjective came from their dividing the world into eleven separate areas of authority, something that was also criticized as un-Vaishnava. The number of their critics only grew as the scandals increased. The more outspoken found no other choice but exile from their heavy-handedness and the authority of the Governing Body Commission (GBC) of the ISKCON institution. This highest institutional body had approved and later claimed to have appointed these eleven. Under the body’s authority the suspicions of the critics were rarely given voice and quickly swept away. By now, however, a majority of devotees probably accept the zonals’ pretence. Some of them use statements of the real acaryas to demonstrate that the entire zonal undertaking and GBC support for any of them is proof that the body was itself a kind of pretender to genuine Vaishnava authority.
Of course most of these critics previously followed and served one of the zonal acaryas. This means that their presentations usually contain no shortage of personal resentment and frustration. They generally feel exploited or misled by not only the man they followed but the GBC body who approved the whole dispensation. Apart from them, those who completely avoided the zonal’s leadership are often that much more convinced that the GBC caused the movement to deviate from the pure Vaishnava standard that Srila Prabhupada had previously established.
The eleven zonal acaryas were certainly guilty of many abuses and offenses to other followers of Srila Prabhupada, such as pretentious imitation of Srila Prabhupada’s high level of worship, as well as ostracizing critics and heavy-handed management. However, when we apply the above criteria of Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura, we can understand that their many scandals were the kiss of death that, in the eyes of many devotees, clearly indicated that many of them were dharmadvajis. Nevertheless, just like the GBC, even the zonals that remained free from scandal became implicated by their previous support and approval of the scandalized. It is the obvious pretence that has empowered the justified outcry over the zonal’s and GBC abuses.
Around 1985 the GBC started accepting efforts to reform and eventually discontinued the zonals’ worst abuses. These included largely expanding the ability of others to be selected as apparent gurus. Nevertheless, some of these new “lower-profile gurus” also became embroiled in scandals, something that proved a very difficult blemish for the institution to rid itself of. Even the GBC’s vetting process for such people implied they had a kind of monopoly on determining who is an apparent guru. Many concluded that this put them in the position of Krishna or Srila Prabhupada, something that those who suffered under the zonals felt they were unworthy of. This then also received no shortage of criticism.